Course Work: Star words
Writer Dava Sobel pushes students to get the most out of their language.
“Why are we reading poems today?” Dava Sobel glances around the room at her silent students. A small, glamorous woman with white-gray hair and maroon lipstick, Sobel looks like a poet. In fact, she is a former New York Times science reporter and the bestselling author of Longitude (1995), Galileo’s Daughter (1999), and The Planets (2005). She is also the Committee on Creative Writing’s sixth Robert Vare writer-in-residence; her Winter Quarter course is called simply Writing about Science.
“There really is a reason,” Sobel insists. “Poetry forces you to get the most out of your language like nothing else. Even if you don’t write poetry, there are elements of these poems that are instructive to prose stylists: the compression of language, the originality of expression, the brevity.”
Behind Sobel looms an enormous video monitor, a remnant of Rosenwald Hall’s previous occupant, the Graduate School of Business. (Built in 1905 for the departments of geography and geology, Rosenwald also retains a tower that once held meteorological instruments.) Opposite the TV stands a bank of Gothic windows, encased in practical, if unattractive, double-glazing.
Sobel’s students are settled around five tables pushed into an enormous whole. Sitting in on the course, Steve Koppes, a science writer in the University’s News Office, and Sobel’s husband, ballroom dancer Alfonso Triggiani, choose desks against the wall, at a tactful distance from the group.
Sobel suggests starting with “Diffraction” by Diane Ackerman. Six students shuffle through their papers. The other five flip open laptops. With the readings on electronic reserve, print is optional.
“I think we should have some dramatic readings,” Sobel says. Third-year Jared Sagoff volunteers: “When Carl tells me it’s Rayleigh scattering / that makes blue light, canting off molecular / grit, so slowgait through the airy jell, subdued / ...how I envy / his light touch on Earth’s magnetic bridle...” At the end, Sagoff glances up at the group as proudly, yet humbly, as if the poem were his.
“I’ve probably read this poem 50 times, and I got chills
again listening to you read it,” says Sobel. “Does anybody
else react to it like that? Does anybody really not like it?”
“I’m perplexed by it,” admits Rob Mitchum, a third-year grad student in neurobiology. “I’m probably just bad at reading poetry. There are weird shifts that bother me. Like the ‘everythingness of everything’ part is really vague, and everything else is so detailed.”
The discussion turns to the “science words” of the poem, then to the poet’s regret that she could never comprehend science like “Carl”—meaning Sagan, AB’54, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60. “I don’t understand why she took that approach,” says fourth-year math student Jessica Winter, clearly irritated. “Is this saying girls can’t do science?”
Second-year Zachary Binney reads aloud the next poem, Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which ends as the poet, having fled the lecture hall, “looked up in perfect silence at the stars.”
“An anti-science poem,” offers Sobel.
“It seemed almost more natural than the other poems,” says contrarian Mitchum. “It’s hard to think of two more opposite ways to deal with the same topic—like the stars. There’s the poetry way and the physicist way. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of overlap.”
“Wait a minute,” says Sobel. “Let’s look at ‘Just This’ by Merwin.”
Visiting student Ben Rassbach reads it aloud. “I like this one a lot,” says fourth-year Drew Huening. “‘Light came...at the speed it was born to’—that’s pretty sweet.”
“One of the things to notice is the kinds of words that get used,” Sobel says. “Just looking at this one, line by line: ‘the patience I have had,’ ‘the dark before I remember,’ ‘until the light came.’ There are lots of verbs, and lots of nouns, and just a few adjectives, and no adverbs—all of which I think are good points to put in prose.”
The students squint at printouts and laptops, counting parts of speech.
“We haven’t really talked about rules of writing,” Sobel says (the quarter has reached the halfway point), “but there are certain things that I consider universal truths. Most adverbs are useless, and lots of adjectives are too. I won’t name names, but I have caught a few of you using words like incredible—”
Outside the Gothic windows, a thunderclap booms like a sound effect.
The class guffaws.
“Breathtaking,” Sobel continues, smiling. “Awesome. What do those words mean? What information do they impart? Compare them to words like red, eleven. I would urge you to make the reader stay awake while reading what you write.”
THE THREE-HOUR CLASS BREAKS MIDWAY THROUGH. Back in session, Sobel announces there is another poem to read, “We Walk on Fire”—and that the poet is in the room.
Sobel had wanted to include the poem with the others on e-reserve, but the library wouldn’t let her conceal the name of its student author: “They have rules about that.”
“I sent it by e-mail,” third-year Danit Kaya, who serves as Sobel’s research assistant, explains.
Some students seem confused: “I definitely didn’t get it. Can we have a show of hands of who received it? When did you send it?”
“It was sent on February 7,” says Kaya.
“Ah, I got it.”
“At 4:54 p.m.,” one student says.“4:52,” says another.
“4:53,” says Kaya. “And the subject line was ‘Science Writing Additional Poem.’”
“Yup, there it is.”
Sobel pauses for a bit to give everyone a chance to read, or re-read, the ten-line poem, then asks, “Who would like to read this aloud?”
“Why not the author?” says Rassbach.
“That would give it all away,” says Sobel.
“I’ll read it,” second-year Binney volunteers. “I definitely don’t write poetry.” He shifts to poetry mode: “‘We walk on fire, like the morning / Melting earth to Earth returning / And raft on nature’s crematory / Geology’s memento mori…. Throughout its incandescent gyre / The world is old, but young in fire.’”
“I like it, especially the last stanza,” says second-year Katherine Hessler. Other students join in: “I like it.” “I really like it.”
“I disagree with the science,” says Rassbach. “I thought I learned the continental crust doesn’t submerge.”
“That’s what I learned too,” Sobel agrees, “but I still like the poem.” After a little more discussion and an explanation of memento mori—“A reminder of your own mortality,” says Sagoff; or, adds Huening, “a reminder of someone who has died, like a lock of hair, or an old-timey photograph of a child corpse.”—Sobel says, “Would the real poet please stand up?”
It’s Sagoff, who reads the piece again at the class’s request—then smiles the way he did after reading the Ackerman poem, except this time the poem really is his.
Near the end of the session, the students take turns reading stanzas from Erasmus Darwin’s “The Botanic Garden,” the longest poem on today’s list; the two-part work was written between 1789 and 1791. Available most readily from less authoritative online sources—sites like PoemHunter.com, ReadPrint.com, FirstScience.com—such older, more obscure poems, are especially challenging to recite.
“My plumy pairs in gay empvoidery dress’d,” reads one line in Darwin’s poem. Empvoidery? Poetic neologism? Typo? Both?
Sobel interprets: “Embroidery.”
The reading list for Writing about Science’s class on science included, in alphabetical order, “Diffraction” by Diane Ackerman; “The Botanic Garden” by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles); “The Star-Splitter” by Robert Frost; “Model of the Atom,” “The Element Refugees,” and “Building the Periodic Table” by Jennifer Grisham; “Just This,” by W. S. Merwin; “Sonnet: To Science” by Edgar Allan Poe; “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich; “December 27, 1966” by L. E. Sissman; “A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton” by James Thomson; and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman.
Grades for the course, offered through the Committee on Creative Writing, are based primarily on a major project due at the quarter’s end. Jared Sagoff planned to write a chapter of a book on clams; Rob Mitchum, a book proposal about the influence of psychoactive drugs on musical creativity; Bihui Li, a magazine article on “quantum suicide”; Zachary Binney, a series of radio pieces on contemporary science topics; and Jessica Winter, a “short, accessible intro to calculus.”—C.G.